Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 10, 2022
3 min read

Rotavirus is a virus that causes diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms. It’s very contagious and is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. If you look at a rotavirus through a microscope, it has a round shape. The Latin word for wheel is “rota,” which explains how the virus got its name.

Rotavirus causes inflammation in the stomach and intestines. It can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, belly pain, and dehydration in infants, young children, and some adults.

Medications can help with the symptoms, but there’s no cure for rotavirus. Even children who have been vaccinated against it may get it more than once.

If your child has come into contact with rotavirus, symptoms won't show up for about 2 days. Then, they’ll have:

  • Fever, vomiting, and stomach pain. Rotavirus usually starts with these symptoms, which then fade away.
  • Diarrhea begins after the first three symptoms have stopped. As the virus works its way through your child's system, the diarrhea can hang on for 5 to 7 days.

Call your doctor if your child has:

  • Lethargy
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Less desire to drink fluids
  • Stools that are black or contain blood or pus
  • Any high temperature in a baby younger than 6 months
  • A high temperature for more than 24 hours in a child older than 6 months

With all the vomiting and diarrhea, your child may not feel like eating or drinking. This can make them dehydrated, which might even become life-threatening. Older adults, especially those with other illnesses or conditions, could also get dehydrated.

Call your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms of dehydration:

  • Anxiousness
  • Crying with no tears
  • Little urination or dry diapers
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Severe sleepiness
  • Pale skin
  • Sunken eyes

Adults often have similar symptoms, but they tend to be less severe.

Anyone can get rotavirus, but it most commonly affects:

  • Infants
  • Young children
  • Close relatives
  • Those who work with children, such as nannies or child care workers

If your child has rotavirus, it's in their poop before symptoms start and up to 10 days after they taper off. During that time, when your child wipes after using the toilet, rotavirus can spread to their hands. If they don't wash their hands, they might contaminate anything they touch, including:

  • Crayons and markers
  • Food
  • Surfaces such as sinks and kitchen counters
  • Toys, including shared electronics such as iPads and remote controls
  • Utensils
  • Water

If you touch your child's unwashed hands or any object they’ve contaminated and then touch your mouth, you can be infected.

Disinfecting is key. Rotavirus can live on surfaces and objects for weeks.

Your doctor will probably base a diagnosis on a physical exam and questions about symptoms.

In some cases, they may have a lab analyze a sample of your child’s stool.

There's no specific medicine to treat rotavirus. Antibiotics can't touch it, and antiviral drugs don’t help.

Your doctor may suggest medicine to help with the symptoms and rehydration fluids to replace minerals lost through vomiting and diarrhea.

Rotavirus usually works its way through your child's system over the course of a week. During that time, give them plenty of fluids to offset dehydration, including:

Bland foods, such as crackers, are best. Steer clear of apple juice, milk, cheese, sugary foods, and anything else that might make vomiting or diarrhea worse. Also avoid sugary sports drinks.

Frequent hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces help, but nothing is a guarantee.

The CDC recommends getting your child vaccinated against rotavirus. This will make them less likely to get it. If they do get it, the symptoms will be less severe.